At first glance, Memorial Union Bookstore Manager Mike McRell and Assistant Manager Lesley Green seem no different than any other Barnes & Noble College employee. They’re clearly smart, funny and personable individuals; efficient in their management of the store in the newly renovated Memorial Union building at Emporia State University, and clearly dedicated to their customers, their college and students. In fact, you only really begin to wonder about their sanity as the conversation takes a turn at the mention of The Polar Plunge.
Admittedly, even McRell and Green probably never thought things would go this far. Apart from a compulsion to dress in costume at the slightest suggestion, and impromptu breakouts of the Harlem Shuffle, the pair had always taken a somewhat rational approach to their outreach initiatives. Perhaps in a valiant attempt to distance himself, McRell will even confide that the whole Polar Plunge project was actually Green’s idea.
“A Special Olympian worked for us at the bookstore and we all became very close to her, and to the cause, so I thought we really had to participate in this year’s Polar Plunge to raise funds for the Kansas Special Olympics,” Green explains. She insists it took little persuading to encourage her colleagues to join the brave team – and McRell attests to her compelling nature. “It’s actually a guilt thing,” he concedes, “she’s really good at it.” Soon the whole bookstore was committed to the plunge, leaving Green the responsibility of picking a suitable team name and theme for the event. “As a bookstore, we just had to go as The Revenge of the Book Nerds, and dress up like…nerds,” she explains, proudly.
On the eventful day, the morning dawned clear and cool, and down at Emporia’s Mouse Lake, the glacial water temperatures topped out at a bracing 33 degrees. Reassuringly, or perhaps worrisome, there were heated tents and medics on hand, ‘just in case.’ “It takes your breath away for a complete minute before you finally realize what’s happening,” recalls Green of her brief, yet icy, dip. “Complete and utter shock,” McRell agrees, possibly still numb from his triumphant moment in the lake. Despite impending frostbite, the warm-hearted staff at the Memorial Bookstore seemed to enjoy their arctic experience, raising over $400 for the Special Olympics. “It was such fun,” Green remembers fondly, “We really wanted to help out – and everyone just had a blast!”
In fairness, most of the events staged by the Memorial Union Bookstore do not usually involve the threat of hypothermia, such as supporting ESU’s Postcard Palooza recruitment by helping to mail over 9,000 informational postcards to graduating area high school students. “Events like these might seem like outreach to the community, but we never think of them as anything but fun,” McRell points out. “We’re part of the campus and love to support its initiatives,” he adds. “We get so much back from supporting our school – and the university is always there to support us in return.”
Life is clearly never boring at the Memorial Union Bookstore and, having not yet learned the error of their ways, the team has already decided to volunteer for next year’s Polar Plunge. A campaign is underway to enlist more unsuspecting people from the university for an even larger turnout for next year’s event, and you can detect a thinly-veiled sense of anticipation about costume choices. There’s just the briefest pause in the conversation before McRell admits, “Actually, we can’t wait; we’re thinking maybe next year we’ll go as characters from Despicable Me…..”